It was a hot and dusty afternoon, about 30 hours into my Indian journey, when the bus driver dropped me off in a small town that he said was near my destination: Rishikesh, regarded as the unofficial world capital of yoga. Only a short rickshaw ride, it seemed, separated my fatigued self from inner Zen. Nearly two weeks of life with monks at an ashram awaited.
On what I hoped was my final jaunt, the rickshaw ride took me through a labyrinth of cows, street vendors and bicycles set against a stunning Himalayan mountainscape. The sun was bright, but the tedium and duration of the trip had left me feeling like the cow dung I had stepped in along the way.
“You have to cross the bridge,” the rickshaw driver said as we stopped. I could see Parmarth Niketan, the town’s largest ashram, where I had booked a room, across the Ganges River, but that suspension bridge — bedecked by monkeys — remained. The river bisected the town, and I was on the wrong side. Schlepping my body-size bag across the bridge while dodging mopeds, my real-life game of Frogger finally ended at the ashram’s gate.
From New Delhi, Rishikesh is accessible by train, plane and bus. Without much planning, I had boarded a bus from New Delhi for about $8 on the fly and embarked on an eight-hour, bump-filled journey, complete with “Elephant Crossing” signs along the way.
All of this was in the name of trying to get a sense of what it was like to practice yoga in the place where some think it was born. In New York, I had taken to my sticky mat and found myself wanting to learn more about how yoga had evolved into an urban pastime for the well-off from its roots as an ancient spiritual practice. In the eight years since Elizabeth Gilbert published her witty memoir, “Eat, Pray, Love,” the journey of the single female yogi to India in search of her soul has become something of a trope, with countless women following suit, one backbend at a time.
Yoga’s origins are debated, but many historians say it may have begun nestled amid the Himalayas, due north of New Delhi and along the historic Ganges in Rishikesh. For centuries, it has been considered a holy place, drawing wayward spiritualists hoping to connect with the land, philosophies and the spirit. More recently, this town of about 100,000 has gained fame as the place where the Beatles came in early 1968 and wrote much of “The Beatles,” commonly known as “The White Album.” (Today, that ashram is abandoned.) Everyone from Uma Thurman to Jeremy Piven to Bollywood stars to Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall has swung through town.
It is a “land in which to conquer one’s senses,” a guidebook for Parmarth reads, “to conquer the call of desire, to become a master of oneself.”
That sounded good to me, even if it felt a bit on the self-indulgent side for a getaway. Before my departure, a yoga-teacher friend labeled Rishikesh “yoga heaven.” An Indian friend countered, “That’s where the annoying kids from my boarding school hung out.”
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Curious and without shame, I joined their ranks: Was Rishikesh a morally bankrupt yoga Disneyland or still a special spiritual destination?
Yoga had entered my life in earnest a few years ago when I was looking for a way to stretch and prevent injuries from running. I became a regular, attending a yoga class at my local gym or studio in New York two to three times a week, but I am by no means a certified teacher or expert on its origins. But if I had to be really honest about why I first got into it, it was because I enjoyed the quiet time and didn’t want to become fat and brittle.
I was already in love with what Rishikesh didn’t have. No Starbucks, no McDonald’s, no condos along the Ganges. And also what I didn’t have: I had decided to turn off my iPhone during my 10-day stay. No web browsing, no apps, no emails, no voice-mail messages, no text messages. While Rishikesh doesn’t lack digital connections, I, like many New Yorkers, felt too plugged in, my iPhone at times feeling hooked to my person like a respirator. That all-too-common feeling was exacerbated by having spent the previous month reporting nonstop at the Winter Games in Sochi, which, in spite of its infamous logistical hurdles (yes, I was one of those who got locked in her hotel room and had to be busted out by a colleague), was a round-the-clock, wired experience.
After checking in and getting a power nap, I went to my first yoga class at the ashram with Swami Yogananda, a man who claimed to be 105 years old. He attributes his astonishing achievement in oldness to both the yoga practice he is said to have begun in the 1920s and a grainless diet of fruit, milk and nuts. Some of the people I spoke with in Rishikesh said that his teachings and reputation were among the reasons they were drawn to Parmarth.
He rolled into the ashram’s prayer hall one morning with a mobile phone tucked into a golden bucket, toothpick-thin legs emerging from a nest of orange cloth; then, in broken English, he guided a small class through a series of heavy, nasal-breathing exercises. His signature move was holding his hands out as claws and leading the class in a chorus of loud roars. I felt ridiculous in my yoga pants imitating a lion, but if he was really 105, whatever Yogananda Ji was doing was clearly working. So, I roared.
I was fully aware that I had become yet another Westerner making a spiritual voyage to India, a tradition even older than Yogananda Ji, one that is at times complicated, littered with over-romanticization and, occasionally, tension.
But as I continued my big cat growls, I was struck by how far the chasm was between what I had experienced in some North American forms of the practice, in which throngs of neurotic yet limber women wear $100 Lululemon pants while channeling their inner pretzel. Although Google Maps can help locate a vinyasa class in Manhattan by star-rating, it’s not as useful for more existential queries like “find self.”
In spite of India’s status as one of the world’s most dynamic developing economies, travel there is still not for the faint at heart. Corruption runs rampant in the country’s political system, and heartbreaking poverty fills the streets. The yoga studio closest to me in New York charges $1,300 annually, not far from what many Indians live on for an entire year. Rather than an escape, Indian travel can be at times unintentionally confrontational and reminded me of the James Baldwin quotation that “anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.”
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While Rishikesh offers some hotel options, I wanted to stay at an ashram to immerse myself in the yogi life. That’s easier now than ever, as many have websites and will take reservations via phone and email. I had booked a room at Parmarth for 300 to 700 rupees a night, a suggested donation of about $5 to $12, at 60.5 rupees to the dollar.
Parmarth is among the ashrams that has delicately danced between extending its arms to make Rishikesh accessible to new, foreign visitors while trying to preserve its Indian, spiritual core. In the last 30 years, it has added Western-style toilets and hot water, but it has drawn the line at television sets, hotel gyms and mini bars.
While electricity and heat in the rooms came and went during my stay, it felt luxurious by local standards. I shared the garden pathways with nearly 200 young boys studying Sanskrit and ancient Vedic texts, and an array of “enlightened masters” who came to meet with the swamis. The chanting starts at 5 a.m. every day, and quiet hours are requested after 10 p.m.
“I think the type of people coming here has changed,” said Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswati, one of Parmarth’s longtime spiritual leaders and the director of the ashram’s yoga festival. “And it’s been a mutually affecting relationship, because the type of people has changed, Rishikesh has changed — and because Rishikesh has changed, the type of people has changed. As you create more and more facilities, you are able to bring in a group of people who otherwise might not come.”
An American born into a Jewish family in California, she came to Rishikesh as a 25-year-old graduate student on a break in fall 1996 with a guidebook and a whim, excited at the prospect of an easier life as a traveling vegetarian, only to find herself weeping at the banks of the Ganges. “And the second part of my life began,” she said.
During my stay, I encountered gaggles of yoga teachers, young and old, but also wealthy young Indians unpacking angst, Midwestern American moms also hoping to decompress, one man who had sold his Facebook stock, some befuddled recent college graduates, several recently divorced and miscellaneous heartbroken souls, some self-described “crusty hippies,” a supermodel yogi, a Catholic priest turned Zen monk, a specialist in “laughter yoga,” several people who had recently quit their jobs and at least one teacher who said he preferred to pair his yoga practice with hallucinogenic drugs.
“What they’re walking away with is much more than just more flexible hamstrings and slightly stronger and more well-defined triceps and some pictures,” Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswati said. “People, their lives change here.”
Mornings start at the ashram with prayers and chanting at 5 o’clock, sometimes earlier. Meals are vegetarian, usually rice, lentils and some cooked vegetables, and are eaten in silence while you sit on a floor in a communal space. If alcohol and meat aren’t officially banned in Rishikesh, they’re certainly hard to come by. And many of the spandex uniforms of Manhattan studios clash with ashram dress codes, which ask for women to have shoulders and legs covered.
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While some local travel agencies offer kayaking and hiking adventures, yoga is by far the main affair, and no one is in a hurry, instead strolling from studio to studio, clad in loose clothing and mats under arm, ready to pop in for a flow.
Word of mouth reigns in Rishikesh, but the streets are also lined with boards advertising various schools with yoga classes, like Yogananda Ji’s. After his class, I went to Tattvaa Yogashala with the yogi Kamal Singh, for a more rigorous series of poses in a goldfish tank of a studio that faced the Ganges, one of several that takes drop-ins for less than $8 a class. In a feline manner, he climbed on top of various people in the class as they did poses, testing our stability.
With heavily used muscles comes pain, and Rishikesh offers a bounty of massage options on the cheap, 2,400 rupees, or about $40, for one that involved a hot-oil drip followed by a visit to a steam box that would have been a cannibal’s dream. Expect to get, ahem, more naked than you would for an American massage and handled less gingerly.
Ashrams and yoga schools offer an array of seminars in which yoga as a lifestyle and religion are primary topics. Local bookstores offer reasonably priced English-language books about India and its spiritual history, perfect for reading along the Ganges as the aarti, or fire ceremony, takes place every night at sunset. The event engages hundreds for songs and prayer in Hindi and Sanskrit as candles are lit, a symbolic offering of “thank you” to the river that is considered sacred and a source of life and energy.
One of my favorite Rishikesh pastimes was attending satsang, a sort of spiritual Q.-and-A. session, part “Donahue,” part college seminar, part sermon. The famed Mooji, a Jamaican guru, was among those who held satsangs in Rishikesh during my stay, attracting hundreds of followers daily.
One by one and in front of the large crowd, they asked often-raw questions of Mooji, who answered or used them as springboards for riffs on faith. One question was from a married man with children who said simply, “I’m tired of being a person.” Another was a young woman who was struggling with her conservative Jewish family accepting her as lesbian. At one satsang, a young man made his way onstage and buried himself in Mooji’s lap, in tears. I sat watching cross-legged, feeling somewhere between moved and confused.
Three days in, I was doing six to eight hours of yoga a day. When I told yogis and gurus of my tech sabbatical, their reactions reinforced my suspicion that cellphones are something of a Buddhist nightmare, their sole purpose being to take you out of the present. So does worrying. My stress was beginning to dissipate, and as the hours rolled by in meditation and yoga classes, I realized that my mind was less like Steve Jobs’s famously sparse living room than one of the homes from “Hoarders.”
As it happened, my travel dates partly overlapped with the annual International Yoga Festival, a collection of more than 600 yogis from 51 countries, centered at Parmarth. (The $500 suggested donation included lodging, food and classes.)
FOR THE REST OF MY STAY an even broader array of yoga classes would be offered at the ashram, sometimes even four or five simultaneously.
As I immersed myself in backbends and kundalini poses that included holding my arms up for 20 minutes at a time (yes, 20 minutes), the half-hour mediation sessions began to feel shorter, the leg poses more attainable. A master of reiki, a Japanese relaxation practice, taught me how she uses a pendulum to read electromagnetic fields and how to sense auras. I learned about the virtues of mudra, or hand gestures, that the teacher said aided in warding off everything from fatigue to back pain to insomnia. Another yogi talked to me at length over ginger tea about quantum physics, which included the lesson that the pain from holding a pose is only a construct because none of us is real. My leg muscles felt otherwise.
Not one of the instructors professed the virtues of slate tummies or trimmer thighs. Instead, the visiting Rishikesh yoga teachers, as diverse as their students, seemed more focused on the spiritual rather than the pure fitness side of yoga. None of the studios had mirrors, and much of each class took place with eyes closed.
There’s a temptation among Rishikesh-goers to oversimplify India’s mystique. And surely there is something indescribably wonderful about the place, but more than a week into my cellphone furlough, my head mostly cleared of New York and Olympic cacophony, I realized that I, like many of my fellow Americans, am terrible at something the early yogis strove for: balance. Yet Rishikesh itself provided a strange paradox in extremes: while it was a vacation from modernity for those like me, many locals often struggled for the bare necessities, let alone Wi-Fi access. It’s a cliché takeaway perhaps, but a real one that you can’t just roll a yoga mat over.
The idea that I (or anyone) could steal away to Rishikesh and come back Myself 2.0, exuding Beyoncé-like confidence every moment, is a lovely one. But I knew the greatest test of the Rishikesh trip would be upon my return to an anxiety-filled New York.
I left my yoga mat at the ashram and placed rupees in the donation box. A cabdriver wound me through the hills for an hour to the train station in Haridwar and I tried to make sense of it — my sore arms, the hours of meditation, the captivating fire ceremonies on the Ganges.
Having booked several days ahead with a local travel agent for about $12, I boarded the train to New Delhi, which was downright luxurious in contrast to the bus ride. The National Geographic-ready sight of five monks sitting in front of me and laughing over video clips on their iPads reminded me that I was still digitally disconnected, a fact I had almost forgotten. After leaving India, I flicked on my phone and felt an endorphin hit as the hundreds of emails rolled in and I began scrolling.
As it turned out, I hadn’t missed much.
Source: The New York Times